The Future Includes Data Centers That Power Radiators and Buildings That “Eat” Smog

For ages, people have wrangled urban existences from unlikely foundations, constructing architectural masterpieces in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Today, the issues facing urban sprawl are more complex than simply harnessing Mother Nature. Experts predict that 70% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas by 20501. Cities will feel the strain, magnified by stressors, such as infrastructure, that are ill-equipped to handle a growing population and worsening pollution. The good news is that today’s cities are combatting challenges with unexpected solutions that seem years ahead of the curve. Below are a few of the most innovative concepts happening around the globe.

A CHINESE FOREST CITY THAT WILL “EAT” SMOG

Pollution is a pressing challenge for major Chinese hubs like Beijing and Shanghai. Recognizing the issue, China is leading the charge when it comes to state-of-the-art, sustainable solutions for improving air quality. One example is the Forest City, which aims to host a unique combination of inhabitants—up to 30,000 people and about a million plants2.

In China’s Forest City, plants will outnumber humans by a margin of 3,000 to 1. Image by Stefano Boeri Architetti.

It’s predicted that Forest City will absorb 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 57 tons of pollutants, and produce 900 tons of oxygen each year3. The experiment is expected to result in better air quality, natural noise barriers, and impressive levels of biodiversity that will literally “eat” smog.

Forest City’s self-sufficient community will be powered by geothermal and solar energy sources, and will feature a rail line for electric vehicles. Construction of the city, which will consist of more than 340 acres and house shopping malls, hospitals, homes, hotels, schools, and offices—all covered top to bottom in plant life—will begin soon.

Stefano Boeri, the architect spearheading the project, hopes that the community will serve as a model for future green endeavors, not just because of its features, but also because of its holistic approach to urban planning. The project is built around three pillars: technology, biodiversity, and community engagement—all of which will be central to successful green projects in the future, Boeri explained.

“Collectively, we have been able to increase the number of technical devices that produce renewable energy. But we now understand that this is not enough,” he said. “If we only focus on the technology to fight climate change we will only solve part of the problem. It has to be combined with a diverse urban forestry and, more importantly, a commitment from the local community if we want to create something enduring.”

DATA CENTERS THAT HEAT STOCKHOLM

Data centers, despite their reputation for efficiency, are in reality energy-intensive. Globally, data centers represent as much as 3% of total electricity consumed,4   much of which is needed to run fans to cool servers as they generate a tremendous amount of heat.

Stockholm’s data center program is a unique alignment of corporate incentives and sustainability.

That heat has to go somewhere, and Sweden wants to send it to individual homes. Working with a local heating company and power grid operator, the city of Stockholm announced the Stockholm Data Parks project in 2017, an initiative that helps data centers recycle their excess energy to heat the homes of city residents. The project, which expects to generate enough heat to warm 2,500 homes by the end of 2018, is part of Stockholm’s goal to be completely fossil-fuel free by 2040.5

Sweden is heavily focused on sustainable efforts like this one because it lacks natural energy reserves, and gets just 6.3% percent of its electricity from fossil fuels.6   Also, the Stockholm Data Parks project has attracted investor interest because companies that join the program can sell their own heat, and receive free cooling services. The project offers a great illustration of how a city can align corporate incentives with a unique sustainability initiative.

THE BUILDING THAT’S A GAME CHANGER FOR ROTTERDAM

Renderings of the Dutch Windwheel—currently being touted as “the sustainable icon and future landmark in Europe’s largest port city”— feel like something straight out of science fiction.

The Dutch Windwheel will double as both a major architectural achievement, and a triumph of sustainability. Image by Doepel Strijkers.

In reality, the Windwheel will be part utility and part attraction. It will include apartments, offices, and a hotel, as well as shops and a futuristic ferris-wheel-type ride. The building will stand more than 570 feet tall and will feature a double loop of glass and steel, lending a sleek look to the structure.

Architect Duzan Doepel said that, with the Dutch Windwheel, he aims to create a structure in Rotterdam that rivals the touristic appeal of the London Eye, which draws millions of people each year. “I see this as the kind of project where tourism and real estate can combine in a way that illustrates how innovation can solve some of the social and environmental challenges that we face,” he said.

The Windwheel is more than just visually stunning; it will also be an icon for sustainability and cutting-edge technology. Each of the 40 cabins will be equipped with “smart walls” —glass panels infused with touch-screens that display data about the scenery viewable from the ride—as well as holographic tour guides and 3D interactive experiences that will enlighten visitors about Dutch sustainability programs. The building is intended to be carbon neutral and is scheduled to begin construction in 2025.

“If we’re going to embrace the next economy, which is built on the pillars of sustainable energy and innovation, then we need to develop an architecture that responds to our new environmental and resource challenges,” Doepel said. “Technology is a wonderful tool that we must leverage intelligently as we design our structures for tomorrow’s world.”

As our world progresses into new eras of history complete with their own set of challenges, cities will need to continue to be blueprints for adaptiveness—and smart cities in particular will need to be trailblazers for ideas that push the boundaries of what we thought was possible.

DATA SOURCES

  1. UN World Urbanization Prospects, 2014 Revision
  2. Stefano Boeri Architetti, Studio Urban Planning and Architecture
  3. Stefano Boeri Architetti, Studio Urban Planning and Architecture
  4. The Independent, 2016
  5. BBC, 2017
  6. CIA, World Factbook, Sweden

Rapid Urbanization Creates “Smart” Opportunities

For the first time in history, there are more people living in urban than rural areas and that trend is expected to continue – with 1.4 million people added to the urban population every week1. Today, nearly 54.5% of the world’s population lives in cities2, and it’s expected to grow to 70% by 20503.   People are drawn to cities for a number of reasons – job opportunities, stronger education resources, exposure to arts and culture and a more diverse environment, to name a few.

But for all the richness of cities, urban living can be filled with challenges, from traffic jams to taxed energy systems to overcrowded sidewalks and transit. Many of these difficulties are rooted in dated infrastructure – so as the number of people living in cities continues to rise, investing in and modernizing city infrastructure becomes critical.

The ultimate goal? Creating a “smart city” – one that leverages technology to improve quality of life for its residents, and creates better systems and structures to support it. One that looks ahead to future generations and starts the work now to meet those needs.  Investing in the “smartness” of a city not only modernizes it, but creates a stronger, more sustainable place to live and work.

The good news is that the challenge of creating a smart city presents great opportunities. In fact, the smart city market could grow from an estimated US$1 trillion in 20174 to US$3.5 trillion by the mid-2020s5. This means opportunities for companies, investors and, of course, the residents themselves. How do you uncover those opportunities? Step one is imagining what it might be like to live in a “smart city”.

THE INTERSECTION OF TRANSPORTATION & TECHNOLOGY

Logic dictates that as urban populations continue to swell, the strain already felt by public transit systems, roads, bridges, etc. will increase exponentially. But technology can and is having an impact: autonomous and electric vehicles, the smart power grid, and real-time travel behavior analysis are improving mobility. 

For example, Columbus, Ohio is experimenting with the concept of a rapid transit service consisting of semi-automated and autonomous vehicles, bikesharing and ridesharing services, and connected kiosks that provide scheduling information. The system will employ sensors, special lanes, and smart traffic signals to increase efficiency on the city’s bus system as well. The hope—based upon the premise that a lack of adequate public transportation is at the heart of many cities’ socioeconomic inequality issues—is that these updates will ultimately connect people in underserved communities to job opportunities and healthcare facilities. Ultimately, these innovations can have an even broader benefit, reducing carbon emissions, and solving ubiquitous challenges around the daily commute.

A NETWORK OF CONNECTIVITY

Leveraging technology alone doesn’t automatically make a city “smart”. One of the key practices that today’s smart connected cities follow is “collect, communicate, and crunch6.” This approach involves 1. The collection of data—things like pedestrian flow, weather conditions, and traffic patterns—via smartphones or other devices, 2. Communication among a network of such devices, and 3. Data analysis that produces actionable insights and even predicts what could happen next.

These street lights do much more than just give off light

This type of connectivity, supplemented by the Internet of Things (IoT), is no longer arriving—it’s already here. Today’s cities are transitioning to modern platforms in which every system from emergency response to water storage operates in harmony.

Cities around the world are already integrating their infrastructures through connectivity. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has a massive “smart operations” center, which collects and analyzes information from more than 30 local agencies. The city can predict conditions like where floods will occur if there are dangerous storms.  In Santander, Spain, more than 10,000 sensors have been installed  into city street lamps, poles, parking lots, and building walls to collect data about weather and pedestrian behavior—and an app gives citizens access to this data for transit and event schedules. And in Singapore, the Smart Cities Programme Office employs sensors, cameras, and GPS devices to implement “congestion pricing,” which assigns tolls based on real-time traffic patterns.

CROWDED DOESN’T HAVE TO MEAN IMPERSONAL

Even unseen, sensors are tracking residents and helping cities make commutes better.

Smart cities don’t adhere to a cookie-cutter template – creating an environment that’s comfortable and adaptable to the needs of its many residents is essential. In the smart cities of the future, things such as train platforms, sidewalks, and office buildings will offer a spectrum of data-powered personal comfort preferences. From individualized temperature and lighting controls to customized shopping experiences, virtually no experience of city life is likely to be 100% identical in the future.

 Accessibility can and should include assistance we’ve never imagined – and will open up the urban ecosystem to people of all ages and abilities. Voice assistants, “smart” signage, and responsive street technology will be capable of adapting to individuals’ mobility needs. One concept for “responsive street furniture” (from British designer Ross Atkin in partnership with Marshalls) is already being developed: Users register with a smartphone app and specify their needs (brighter street lights, audio information, a few more seconds to make it across the street) – while they’re walking.

This will be critical, as already today, 25% of the residents in the 100 largest US cities are over the age of 65 or living with disabilities7.

 

WHERE DOES IT ALL LEAD?

The road to arrive at the cities of our tomorrow isn’t short – but we’ve traveled it before.  In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that we installed the first streetlight or turned on the first computer or unveiled the first transit system. What can seem daunting is actually a compelling opportunity for community leaders, companies and investors alike.

Traditional organizations – telecom, construction, transportation, and local governments as examples – will play critical roles, as will relatively nascent industries such as renewable energy, artificial intelligence, cleantech, and cybersecurity.  All will be needed to shape the cities of tomorrow.

And making the investment is worthwhile. Cities are the #1 contributor to GDP – the world’s 600 largest cities are expected to comprise nearly 65% of global GDP growth in the next 10 years8. And a smart city does that in the most efficient and innovative way possible. But the chance to build truly inclusive communities – where technology opens up the ecosystem to all residents may in fact be the most remarkable opportunity of all.

DATA SOURCES

  1. UN 2014
  2. UN DESA 2015
  3. UN World Urbanization Prospects, The 2014 Revision
  4. Smart Cities Council 2016
  5. Persistence Market Research 2017
  6. Smart Cities Council Readiness Guide
  7. U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey: 1-Year Estimates of Metropolitan areas in the U.S.
  8. McKinsey 2016

Reimagining Cities from Sewer to Skyscraper, and the Public-Private Investments Needed to Get There

What does it mean to be a “smart city”? It requires more than simply offering public WiFi or the latest digital cellular networks. It relies on technology to integrate a city’s infrastructure at every level. And, until recently, the word “infrastructure” meant physical assets like roads, streetlights, and sewers, but  smart  infrastructure expands that to include often-invisible data networks which connect, enhance, and control these physical fixtures – becoming the backbone for any truly smart city.

Ambitions for this modern connected infrastructure look to affect everything from energy to housing to transportation to education to health care. Ultimately, the goal is for all of these areas to be interconnected and ladder up to a centralized “brain” that helps them work together. Not an easy transition for most cities – getting there requires a new level of partnership and contribution by governments, companies and investors alike. Often, the private sector leads the way, with expertise or access to new technologies that governments tap into for a range of solutions. Initiatives in three cities—London, Singapore, and Dallas—illustrate some of the different approaches these partnerships are taking.

LONDON: INNOVATING AROUND CHALLENGES

Lighting is a defining characteristic of any cityscape – but it’s so much more than that. Cities bustle with activity day and night, making ubiquitous lighting a necessity. All this illumination requires energy and manpower, and technology can help make it more efficient. That’s why London tapped Philips Lighting’s CityTouch system to power, connect, and automate 42,000 lights throughout the city. Philips estimates that energy consumption is reduced by more than 70%1 while lowering CO2 emissions. Additionally, when a light bulb goes out, CityTouch sends a notification so that a crew can be dispatched for a repair right away. Not only does this make upkeep more efficient, but potentially enhances security by keeping dark corners and roads to a minimum.

Another area of focus is public transportation. Beginning in the 1990s, London installed sensors in traffic lights that recognize oncoming buses and give them priority to pass through. These Selective Vehicle Detection (SVD) sensors have reduced travel times, increased bus ridership by 38% 2, and paid for themselves with operational savings. More recently, Transport for London partnered with the private consulting firm Transport Research Laboratory to develop driverless shuttles that are safer and more efficient than their non-autonomous counterparts. In addition, the partnership is developing technologies to make the system safer—with its trial run of curbside audio and light signals to alert pedestrians of an approaching bus.

The city has also gotten smart about its handling of another common challenge: lack of parking. Up to a third of traffic in downtown areas is made up of drivers looking for spots3 – contributing to congestion, frustration, and a steady unnecessary stream of CO2. By partnering with FM Conway Ltd and parking technology specialist Smart Parking Limited, the busy Westminster area of London has used Infrared SmartEye sensors in more than 3,000 parking spaces to determine availability. This data is then transmitted to the ParkRight mobile app, which maps real-time open spaces for drivers.

Historically London has been at the forefront of leveraging innovation to solve city challenges, but they reinforced their approach in 2013 by creating the Smart London Board. The board has included experts from companies like Siemens, Intel, Huawei, McKinsey, and IBM and its main focus is helping London’s leadership find technology-based solutions to major urban dilemmas.

SINGAPORE: MEETING THE NEEDS OF HIGHLY CONNECTED CITIZENS

Smart cities are data-heavy endeavors. When data is offered as a public utility, it presents a powerful new tool for entrepreneurs and startups to harness into opportunity. On this front, Singapore’s government has jumped in headfirst with one of the world’s largest smart city rollouts, Smart Nation. The program was launched in 2014 with the goal of leveraging technology, networks and big data to open the doors to economic opportunity, build stronger communities and an overall better quality of life. It’s a roughly $2 billion public investment aimed at creating opportunities for private infrastructure initiatives.

The program requires a massive amount of data aggregation and transfer, which is processed by public and private network controllers. This multi-faceted network will be used by both government agencies and businesses to offer services, such as predictive healthcare services, simplified cashless transactions, and real-time autonomous mobility services to Singapore’s highly connected population.

In addition, the city’s Beeline SG system leveraged these network-based technologies to deliver a connected mobility platform which went live in August 2015. The cloud-based system allows riders to book seats on available buses ahead of time via an app, guaranteeing a seat on the bus. Travelers can also suggest new routes and, based on demand, routes are added and changed. This is partially attainable because the Beeline platform is an open sourcing model– it allows for private transport companies to supplement the public services in order to keep up with commuter demand. Currently there are seven private bus operators on Beeline and 34 routes, with plans to add more4.

DALLAS: LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGY TO ACCELERATE EFFICIENCY

Dallas is an active city – it houses 20 Fortune 500 company headquarters5 and has the 7th largest concentration of technology jobs in the U.S6. In 2015, the Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA) was founded as a public-private coalition that includes local government, corporations, civic organizations, NGOs, and academia joining forces to transform Dallas into “a forward-thinking, innovative smart global city.”7   DIA is a non-profit entity, with a strategy of a testing out key ideas and initiatives in pilots instead of pushing things out quickly to the whole city.

Phase One of DIA’s initiative includes the creation of a connected “living lab” inside the city’s West End neighborhood, the fasting growing residential area in Dallas County. The lab is powered by AT&T and supported by partners including Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Dallas Regional Chamber, Cisco, IBM, and Philips. An early initiative includes the installation of Smart LED light bulbs from GE and Philips managed by “intelligent nodes,” which enable intelligent lighting management. These connected light bulbs could eventually be used to capture real-time data such as air quality, traffic congestion, crowd gatherings, and other events.

Other initiatives being rolled out by the lab include a smart parking system, advanced water metering that wirelessly monitors and optimizes usage, and a smart irrigation system to service a downtown park. All the collected data will be funneled through an open source platform that can be tapped by citizens, entrepreneurs, and other organizations to create their own applications.

And a major added benefit of the living lab is that it allows Dallas to test smart city ideas with no cost to taxpayers. The solutions being tested in the West End are almost entirely funded by in-kind donations from partners of the alliance.

AS CITIES GO, SO GOES THE WORLD

The dense and dynamic cities of the future will face unprecedented challenges.  They will be tasked to efficiently and sustainably deliver transportation, security, and opportunity to millions of residents. But these challenges bring with them unprecedented opportunities. Opportunities for governments, companies, investors and citizens to work together – bringing the best thinking to the forefront. From those ideas will come enhanced quality of life, more efficient governance, strong long-term investments, economic growth, and, of course, truly Smart Cities.

DATA SOURCES

  1. Philips, Lighting the Future (2014)
  2. Transport for London, Bus priority at traffic signals keeps London’s buses moving (2006)
  3. Shoup, Cruising for Parking, 2015
  4. Government Technology Agency of Singapore, 2017
  5. Dallas Regional Chamber, Dallas Economic Development Guide
  6. Dallas Regional Chamber, Dallas Economic Development Guide
  7. Dallas Innovation Alliance, 2017

Traditional Industries Join Forces with New Tech

Increasing population levels and more frequent climate events are presenting new challenges to city living, and cities need to evolve in order to tackle these challenges. Below are some examples of how traditional industries, such as utilities, telecom and agriculture, are joining forces with innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), renewable energy and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help drive a new era of industry. Inter-industry collaboration will not only ensure that city infrastructure can deliver on a minimum of public services—security, water, electricity, transit—but it can also help overcome risks that lead to fragility.

BIG DATA MEETS AGRICULTURE

The concept of smart agriculture marks an important collaboration between a centuries-old industry and ultra-futuristic technology. Ultimately, big data could inform the way we farm, eat, and sustain growing communities.

A clear example of this is smart water systems, which lead to smarter irrigation and in turn improve crop yields. Smart water networks enable proactive monitoring—they can measure metrics like leakage, pressure, quality, etc.; diagnose issues in real-time; and adjust settings accordingly to reduce waste.

The future of farming is smarter – and more vertical

Paired with urban ag developments like vertical farming, these integrated systems can help sustain rising city populations. In addition, drone surveillance and data-driven tech can drive other efficiencies in modern agriculture. Companies like GrowUp Urban Farms in London, Sky Greens in Singapore, and AeroFarms in the United States are proving that tech- and data-infused vertical farming is redefining the agriculture industry. AeroFarms, for instance, is leveraging data and technology to grow food without sun or soil. The company boasts 390 times more productivity per square foot and uses 95% less water than does a commercial field farm.1

There’s huge potential for growth within the smart ag industry. The market is expected to grow from $9.02 billion in 2016 to $18.45 billion in 20222, and the smart water market could grow from $8.5 billion in 2016 to $20.1 billion by 20213.

AI IMPROVES WASTE MANAGEMENT

Smart waste systems have a big secondary benefit: fewer garbage trucks (and less pollution)

Smart waste management is one of the most promising ways to address the planet’s mounting pollution problem—which is also a major cause of urban fragility. Thanks to the introduction of technologies such as RFID (radio frequency ID) tags on waste bins, automated garbage collection, and solar-powered trash compactors, tech-based waste management systems are making progress in a big way.

Big Belly is one of the global leaders in the smart waste management space with more than 50 countries leveraging their platforms. Communities are able to use Big Belly’s solar-powered, sensor-equipped waste and recycling stations, which communicate real-time status to collection crews. These solutions not only lead to less clutter and waste in urban areas (Big Belly estimates a 70-80% reduction in waste and recycling collections), they also reduce the carbon footprint associated with fleets of waste-removal vehicles. In addition, they offer increased infrastructure for hosting technologies like WiFi. Soon, AI is likely to play an even greater role in urban waste management and recycling. This could result in more diversion of plastics, steel, aluminum, compostable food waste, and paper products—the bulk of municipal solid waste—from landfills 4. And while not as big as the agriculture and water markets, the smart waste management market is predicted to more than double from $1.1 billion in 2016 to $2.4 billion by 2021.5

5G TRANSFORMS HEALTHCARE

5G connectivity will result in more than simply speedier web-browsing—it will fundamentally change the way the world exchanges data. The healthcare industry in particular stands to benefit from widespread 5G connectivity, especially as data-heavy technologies like the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) become integrated into city (and hospital) infrastructure.

Uniform and high-bandwidth connectivity means it will become easier for nurses, doctors, specialists, and medical facilities to connect with patients and with one another no matter where they are. In the long term, 5G networks will likely mean that a variety of routine healthcare scenarios— wellness visits to diagnostic testing to mental health examinations—can be conducted remotely.

Faster internet access can mean faster diagnoses, examinations and testing

A number of companies are developing healthcare technology solutions that will rely heavily upon 5G. At the 2017 Mobile World Congress, companies including Deutsche Telecom, SK Telecom, and Ericsson showcased how 5G networks may eventually enable robotic telepresence surgery.6  In a demonstration, a robotic “doctor” mimicked intricate surgical motions of a human counterpart—but the technology only functioned optimally while running on a 5G connection.7

Experts predict that healthcare transformation leveraging 5G will facilitate an estimated $76 billion revenue opportunity by 2026 for telecom companies.8  5G is good news for patients, too: One study found that nearly three-quarters of healthcare executives (73%) expect 5G networks will enable services and products that will improve the quality of life for the public at large.9

THE SYNERGIES OF CLASSIC AND NEW

The old adage of 1+1=3 holds true. As established industries team up with new technologies, the results are meaningful for cities around the world. Tech advancement driving industry integration isn’t a new concept; cities have long incorporated new innovations into traditional infrastructure—electric power and computer technology being major examples.

The newer synergies are not only creating solutions that help modernize infrastructure, they are resulting in ancillary ways to help citizens live more efficient and connected lives—thus blazing the trail for a brighter future.

DATA SOURCES

  1. Our Technology, AeroFarms
  2. Markets and Markets, 2016
  3. Markets and Markets, 2016
  4. Environmental Protection Agency
  5. Markets and Markets, 2016
  6. IDG Network World, 2017
  7. IDG Network World, 2017
  8. Ericsson, 5G Healthcare
  9. Ericsson, 5G and IoT: Ushering in a new era

For lovers of technology, the coolest stuff in human history

For lovers of technology, the coolest stuff in human history has arrived in the last century or so, a mere speck at the very end of civilization’s timeline. This last century is when hunter-gatherer and agrarian eras gave way to the mercantile, industrial, and current fifth era, characterized by digital computing and biotech. #DYK #GorillaGlass #history

When Thomas Edison had the idea for the light bulb

When Thomas Edison had the idea for the light bulb, he came to @Corning for the glass envelope that would make the product commercially available. From 1879 to the launch of Gorilla Glass in 2007, Corning has focused on innovations that make the world and your life, better. #AlwaysInnovating #GorillaGlass #SciFri #ScienceFriday 

Testing Underline and Bold Tags!

Come and listen to my story about a man named Jed1 
A poor mountaineer2, barely kept his family fed
And then one day he was shootin at some food
And up through the ground come a bubblin crude. 

Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea3. 

Well the first thing you know ol Jed’s a millionaire
The kinfolk said “Jed move away from there” 
Said “Californy is the place you ought to be”
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly 

Hills, that is. Swimmin pools, movie stars. 

1 Jed is a fictional character from the Beverly Hillbillys
2 Jed’s status as a real mountaineer is in doubt..needs citation
3 There is no historical fact of Texans actually drinking crude oil…needs citation

Hot Lava (keeps us warm at night)!

If you’ve been keeping warm with natural gas, or just firing up the stove at night to make dinner, you might want to take a moment to be thankful for – volcanoes.  Because without “Hot Lava” (and thank you, B-52s), there might be a lot less natural gas (at least in the United States).

This news comes from scientists at Rice University (with a little help from Shell), and tells a story that goes back to the time of the dinosaurs.  Or more precisely, the end of the time of the dinosaurs – the Cretaceous Period, if you remember your paleontology.

We give you a link to the deep science version of this story below, but here’s the ten second synopsis:

During the Cretaceous, there was a time of the volcanoes – hundreds of volcanoes erupting over millions of years, along what would become the West Coast of the United States.  From those volcanoes came massive amounts of ash (and lava too, of course), carried by the wind and dumped over what would become the western Midwest, from Texas to Montana.

But in those days, instead of Texas and Montana, there was ocean – since much of our continent was underwater.  And while volcanic ash is not something most of us would like to find on our plates, it’s a tasty dish (or some of the stuff in that ash is) for some microorganisms, like the phytoplankton that live in the ocean.

So the phytoplankton go on an eating binge (for millions of years), and since they are the starting point in the ocean food chain – everybody and everything underwater also eats well (for millions of years).  And when, in the way of the world, those plants and animals die, fall to the bottom, are covered in sediment, and so forth, over and over and over again – one result of all that carbon (our planet being home to carbon-based life) pressed under the surface is – vast deposits of natural gas.

Which eventually means that when the United States-to-be emerges from under the ocean and dries out – and then (millions of years later), we humans show up – an abundant supply of natural gas is waiting for us, in shale fields from Texas to Montana.  (And although this study didn’t look further east, it may be the same for that Marcellus shale gas field that runs through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio.)

It IS still a mystery as to what exactly did in the dinosaurs.  It may have been volcanoes that finished off T-rex and company.  But now it’s no mystery who many of us have to thank for a warm house in the winter or a roast chicken in the oven – volcanoes!

(And if you want to go deeper into the science, the Rice team published their report on Nature.com.)

Drones and 3D printing AND fixing potholes?

Picture this:  a drone with cameras, featuring pothole-recognition software – spots a bit of damage on the highway.  A repair drone is sent out, equipped with a 3D asphalt printer to lay down some fresh pavement and presto, it’s smooth sailing (well, driving) once again.

How cool is that?  Very cool.  And while it isn’t road ready yet, it’s coming.

Still in the development stage, our compatriots across the pond at the University of Leeds are the ones working on this solution to a rough ride (proof that potholes respect no national boundaries, we suppose).  But they have built a test version, and its repair work is accurate to within one MILLIMETER (that’s about the thickness of a credit card) – which sounds pretty precise for street work.

So, city potholes?

Check.

Country potholes?

Check.

Car-eating potholes?

Well, maybe not.  Not yet, anyhow.

Personally though, we think a drone would look pretty good in one of those fluorescent safety vests.  The one challenge left?  A safety drone to drop (and pick up) those orange cones, to mark off the pothole while it’s being filled.

There’s more too.  The Pothole Patrol drones are part of a larger project on “self-repairing cities” – which might include robots that would “live” inside utility pipes, inspecting, reporting and even repairing leaks – drones that could drop down on a street light and replace a burned-out bulb – and probably other things we haven’t even thought of yet.  So if you’ve got an idea, now is the time to work on that drone to swoop down and pick up dog poop from the sidewalk, or….

“At a gas station, some of Reno’s best Mexican food”

So you’re on the way out of town in Reno, Nevada.  Wherever you’re going next, it’s probably a drive – so you want to fill up before you head out.

Now it could be that you’re flush, and you want to treat yourself before you hit the road.  Or it could be that you’re busted, and you need almost every penny from the change dish, from down between the seats, from your coat pocket – to cover gas money.

Either way, you can get some of the best Mexican food in town AND a full tank of gas, all in one affordable stop.  Just set your GPS for Burrito Express and Valero, on East Fourth Street.

This is a Mexican place, inside a convenience store, inside a Valero station – so, this is road trip food, to go.  But as the Reno Gazette-Journal ranks it, you’ll be going happy, if you’re leaving from Burrito Express:

“The asada is roasty from the grill, the mellower buche bedazzled with juicy pops of fat.”  (Ok, truthfully, if their reporter had stopped here, we’d be headed to the car already.  But there’s more.)

“The quesadilla?  It’s immense…Sweet, savory, caramelized pastor (with traditional pineapple chunks) spills from the quesadilla triangles;  ropes of cheese stretch between…”

“The torta, slicked by the grill, also can barely contain itself.  In fact, to get a handle on this bad boy, I have to eat some of the tender pork loin and grilled onion rounds before I take a bite.”

(Oh, and we hear the gasoline is top tier too.)

That, spells r-o-a-d t-r-i-p to us.

You can read the full review in the Reno Gazette Journal.

You can try the food for yourself, at the Valero station, 2500 E. Fourth Street, Reno.

And if you’ve got a favorite gas station/restaurant combo of your own (in Reno, or anywhere else), let us know.  One day, you might be reading about YOUR place on this page.

“Which New Car Tech Features Are Actually Good?”

That’s the question Road and Track asked in a recent story.  Where’s the line between the dashboard* display that shows how the stock market is trending instead of your speed (ok, that we made up. Well, we think.) versus something cool AND useful (and safe)?

Here’s a sampling of what made their list.  See how it compares with yours:

Number One for Road & Track is the back-up camera.  And even if that one isn’t high on your list, we’re all going to be using them eventually – because every passenger car sold in the U.S. now, is required to have one.  (And yes, that “thanks” you hear, is from your rear bumper.)

Remember cruise control?  Switch that on for a long highway drive, and you can give your right leg a break (plus the steady speed is excellent for fuel efficiency).  The addition of radar puts this on the R&T list.  Now cruise control can adjust to the car in front of you, and keep you at a set distance behind.  You’re still steering though, so all eyes on the road.

Next up, let’s take a couple of under-the-hood items:

Limited-slip differential.  Yes, we had to look that up also.  Say you hit a patch of ice, and one front wheel starts slipping.   The differential sends more power to the other front wheel that still has a grip. It’s been around since the 1930s, but what lands it on this list is the addition of electronics – which make that power shift faster and more precise.

If you’ve ever felt the road a little too much, this one is for you:  magnetic adaptive suspension. These shock absorbers use a liquid polymer (yes, we like that) – and little zaps of electricity to make that polymer thicker or thinner, to react and cushion any bump in the road – in a few milliseconds.  So by the time you know you’ve hit that pothole, your suspension has got your back.  Literally.

Finally, R&T did call out a couple of features that aren’t cool at all – in fact, they’re warm:  the heated steering wheel and the heated seat.  Readers in our northern states, you don’t need us to tell you why that matters.  (Though if you’re south of the Mason-Dixon line, that heated seat is also ventilated – cool, when your car’s been sitting parked in the summer sun.)

Not all of these are on every car, of course – but you can see all thirteen of Road & Track’s top tech for cars, and what cars have them, plus weigh in with your own favorites:  Which New Car Tech Features Are Actually Good?

*And just in case you’re wondering, like we did, WHY is it called a “dashboard”, here’s the answer:  Back in the days before the “horseless carriage” (aka, the car), the dashboard was a piece of wood or leather, put in front of you and behind the horse(s), to keep mud being “dashed” up onto your lap.  Then, in the earliest cars, it would have protected you from whatever the front wheels kicked up (those cars were more open).  Later, it separated you from the heat of the engine – and finally, it just turned out to be a good place to put car instrumentation (once that was invented) – the speedometer, gas gauge, and such.  But while its purpose changed over the years, the name never did.

“Star Truck”?

Imagine for a moment that James T. Kirk did not go to Starfleet Academy, and went instead – to truck driving school.

Well, his ride has arrived…

In fact, Shell, which is helping develop this new truck, calls the project the “Starship Initiative.”

The goal however, is not to explore new worlds, but to use energy more efficiently in the world we’ve got. This new truck incorporates new design ideas, but it will run on diesel and be a truck that could haul cargo on the roads of today, in the lifetime of those of us around today.

Shell’s collaborator on this project is Bob Sliwa and his AirFlow Truck Company – and you’ll find their fuel-saving innovations inside and outside this truck. The aerodynamic front is unmistakable. But in addition, the truck sides and back sweep down almost to the ground, which cuts wind resistance. The cab – built from carbon fiber, strong but much lighter than today’s truck cabs. An energy-efficient six-cylinder diesel engine. A futuristic-looking convex windshield. Low-rolling resistance tires that cut friction with the road. Oils and lubricants from the Shell labs.

This “laboratory on wheels” made a coast-to-coast run recently, to road test the truck design. The results? Compared to the current industry average for big rigs, the amount of cargo the “Starship” could move per gallon of diesel was almost 250 percent higher. That’s a massive increase in fuel efficiency.

So keep an eye out on the highway for this Starship (not that you’d miss it). And get ready for, “These are the voyages of – my 18-wheeler, good buddy!”

Making Flip-Flops, and Making a Difference

What can you make out of polyurethane?

Bowling balls and soccer balls, surf boards and roller coasters, insulation and bandages and flip-flops.  The list of “things” you can make from polyurethane is quite long.

At a New Rochelle (just outside of New York City) company named Tidal, they make flip-flops from polyurethane – but they make something else too – they make a difference in the lives of the Army and Marine Corps vets who work there. More than 80 percent of Tidal’s factory workers are veterans.

Oh, Tidal has the full-on 21st century at work (we’ll show you what the factory floor looks like in a moment):  like pouring liquid polyurethane into molds (instead of cutting the flip-flops out) – digital UV printers for the art on your footwear – and yeah, you can find them on Instagram.

But there are some serious old-school values at work there too:  all the materials come from U.S. suppliers – if you don’t like the flip-flops, they take ‘em back, and you get your money back, period – and, their commitment to hiring ex-servicemen and women.

So let’s turn over the mic to Pat and Siul, Adam and Joe – veterans and Tidal employees, who will show you what they do – the molding, the printing, the strapping, the inspecting – and they’ll tell you a bit about who they are too.  We’ll see you back here in 90 seconds.

Our part in this story is a modest one.  But to make polyurethane, you start with petrochemical building blocks, such as propylene and benzene – so what we make, helps make possible what Tidal makes – the flip-flops, and the difference.

And with summer in the air already, and on the calendar soon, if you’re thinking about something new for your feet this season, you might take a look – and you can do that here:  Tidal New York.

Road Trip! And (Weird) side Attractions

Would you take a break on your road trip for an ice cream shop shaped like a giant owl, called “Hoot Hoot I Scream”?

Yes, of course you would!  Who wouldn’t?  That’s part of the point of a road trip – seeing something, eating something, doing something you only find – out on the road.

And yes, you could have stopped at “Hoot Hoot I Scream.”  It WAS a real place.  And also yes, we’ll show you what it looked like, in a moment.

But first, a few more stops along the road – in this case, the road through California, where a lot of the state was built around the car – so there were plenty of businesses that built themselves to catch your eye from the car.

Like the Big Donut Drive-in (You didn’t drive through the donut though – that was on the roof.  And it was a BIG donut.  32 feet worth.).

Or Tail o’ the Pup (though we admit, this one looks as much like a SpaceX turned on its side, as it does a hot dog in a bun).

And who would not be tempted by the giant coffee pot on the roof of – the “Wilshire Coffee Pot”, naturally (featuring Ben-Hur drip coffee – the perfect drink for a trip in heavy traffic)?  Or the “Bull Stops Here Barbecue”, featuring a GIANT cow?  Or, if only because “could something REALLY be that weird” (and yes, it could), the “Toed Inn” – a drive-in with a walk-up counter that was built into a giant, yes, a toad.

You can see ‘em all here, thanks to the folks at  Atlas Obscura.  And if that whets your appetite, so to speak, for more road trip treats – the source for all these is the book, California Crazy.

And while these roadside attractions are all in California, most states with a highway and road trippers had their own versions, at least at one time (but if you’ve seen the world’s largest teapot, off Highway 30 in West Virginia, you knew that already).

Some say it all began, by the way, with Lucy, a six-story wooden elephant just off the beach in Margate, New Jersey (that’s the southern part of the Jersey Shore, for you fans of the TV show – and on the same island as Atlantic City).  And if this summer finds you in South Jersey – drop by for Lucy’s 137th birthday party.

And if you’ve got a favorite roadside attraction, wherever the road has taken you – let us know, we’d like to hear about it.

The First Annual Cars and Presidents Quiz

Do you know your cars AND your American history?  Then try your hand at our Cars and Presidents quiz.

Ladies and gentlemen – start your brains (not your search engines), and good luck!

Your questions are:

And, the envelopes please:

A. Which President shared his ride with Al Capone (not at the same time, of course)?

Answer: President Roosevelt (Franklin). 

It was an armored Cadillac that had been Al Capone’s car.  This was right after Pearl Harbor, and it was a temporary measure while the official White House car was being fortified.

B. Who was the first President to ride in a car?

Answer: President McKinley. 

That, from the admittedly short list of memorable facts about President McKinley.

C. Who was the first President to ride in a car, as President (hint:  B & C are not the same president)?

Answer: President Roosevelt (Theodore). 

Theodore Roosevelt recorded a number of firsts, though to be fair, he doesn’t seem to have too fond of cars.  Of course, they’ve improved since his day.

D. Who was the first President to go to an auto show?

Answer: President Taft. 

William Howard Taft, on the other hand, DID like cars.  In fact, he officially opened “the 1913 automobile show at the Convention Hall, Washington, D.C. … by pressing a button from the White House, igniting 150,000 lights at the hall.”  Then he went over to have a look in person.

E.  When did the White House stables give way to the White House garage?

Answer: 1909

F. Which President rode in a Lincoln?

Answer: President Truman.

Though he was only the first.  His pair of Lincoln Cosmopolitans went on to serve the next three presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson).

G. Which President owned an Amphicar (it was just what it sounds like)?

Answer: President Johnson (Lyndon). 

You could have had one of these too, as the Amphicar was not an official presidential vehicle (though there were only about 3800 ever made).  Johnson kept it on his Texas ranch, and liked to scare visitors by pretending to lose control and driving into a lake (where it would float).

H. Which President said, “I am a motorist myself and know what it means to travel over rough roads.”?  (And he meant real roads, not metaphorical ones.)

Answer: President Taft. (again)

I. Who was the first President to give up the traditional horse and carriage, and ride in a car to his inauguration?

Answer: President Harding. 

Looking sharp in a Packard Twin-Six.  Looking less sharp later in his administration when the Teapot Dome scandal broke.

J. And who once called out his 1950 ‘Olds in a speech?

Answer: President Nixon. 

Ok, this was a trick question.  Nixon was only Vice-President when he mentioned his Oldsmobile, as part of a description of his modest life (the “Checkers” speech).

Thanks for playing!

Leaving…on a jet plane

Planning to fly somewhere this summer?

That wouldn’t be unusual, since almost half of us got on a plane at some point last year.  (Here’s what that would look like, by the way, if you could see the whole country from high above.  Not all small planes are included):

That animation was produced by the folks at NASA, by the way.

And you know what makes all that flying possible?  The same thing that lets you drive to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.  Fuel – made from petroleum.  The same barrel of oil that’s used to produce gasoline, also produces jet fuel.

Lucky for us, since this country of ours is a big place to travel.  East to West, New York to San Francisco for instance?  About 2,900 miles. And North-South?  Almost 2,400 miles from Maine to Miami.

And while sometimes it IS all about the journey – a lot of the time, you just want to get “there” – you just want to see your mom, or your parents just want to see your kids – your daughter just wants to get to her dorm and unpack, or everybody just wants to unroll their towels on the beach.  Maybe you can’t wait to row out on that lake, or for the curtain to rise on an opera you’ve never seen before.

There are a lot of reasons we travel.  But when you want the miles in between here and there to go by as quickly as possible, say 500 miles an hour – for that, you want a plane.  And a plane, wants fuel.

For example, a Boeing 787, the new Dreamliner, takes more than 33,000 gallons of jet fuel to fill up.  Even for the newest, fuel-saving planes (and the Dreamliner is one of those),  it’s still a big job to get a few hundred people (and their luggage) 35,000 feet up in the air and across the country.

(So maybe it’s just as well that supermarkets don’t have points programs for jet fuel.  Somebody would have to eat a LOT of kale to fill one of those planes up.)

The key ingredient in that jet fuel though, is something that’s been around a long time:  kerosene.  Jet fuel is a more purified version, and there are some other things in it, like anti-freeze (it’s COLD up there at 35,000 feet).  But in principle, it’s the same kerosene that our parents’ parents’ parents’ parents might have used in a lamp, for light.

Wondering which came first, jets or jet fuel?  Jet fuel wins that race, or at least kerosene does.  In the modern era, kerosene was being distilled from petroleum by the time of the Civil War.  The first jet doesn’t take off till the 1930s.

So if you are flying on a plane somewhere this summer, enjoy your trip.  And remember, every flight starts with the jet fuel made from a barrel of oil, and the security line at the airport.

Honky Tonk Polymers: Making Music with Plastics, Part 2

Recently we told you the story of the Res-o-Glas guitar – that plastic guitar from the ‘60s with the shimmery sound, played by a long list of rock gods, from Bob Dylan to Jack White.

Plastic, Fantastic…Guitars: Making Music with Plastics, Part 1

But that’s just Chapter 1 of the plastics and music story.  You could put together an entire band, or orchestra, using instruments built with polymers (“polymer” you’ll recall, is the fancy name for plastic).

Take jazz, for instance, and the saxophone.  Among his instruments, the great Charlie Parker played an acrylic saxophone made by Grafton, and on occasion, so did Rudy Vallee (when he wasn’t singing).  And it wasn’t a Grafton, but David Bowie’s first musical instrument (he was 10 or 11 at the time) was – a plastic saxophone.

There’s a plastic trombone too – the pBone.  (And yes, there’s a pTrumpet too.)  If you’re curious about the chemistry of that music, the pBone is made from ABS plastic, made possible by petrochemicals (in this case, you take a little acrylonitrile, a little styrene, a little butadiene…and a few chemical reactions later, you’ve got a trombone).

So that brass section – “76 polymer pBones led the big parade”?  Well, maybe it works better for the music than the lyrics…

Oh, and if you know your marching band, you know the Sousaphone (named for JP, of course).  Fiberglass has been the material of choice for many of the Sousaphones serenading high school football games from coast to coast, since the 1960s.

Now, if you want some rhythm to back up those horns?  Mylar© might be more familiar as the stuff shiny balloons are made of – but for years now, it’s also been used on the snares, traps and the rest of the drum kit.  Other polymers, like Kevlar©, make an appearance on the skins, (though Kevlar is probably more familiar to most of us as body armor.  And more on THAT side of Kevlar in a future story).

Crossing over to the woodwinds – yeah, a lot of today’s clarinets, piccolos and oboes (recorders too, if you like that elementary school sound) might fairly be called polymerwinds (alright, that sounds terrible).  And if you have a budding flute player in the house – he or she might well be starting out on a jFlute (thanks, ABS).

Should you be one of our readers with a few years behind you, the name Arthur Godfrey might ring a bell.  Or more properly, might pluck a string – since he was famous for his ukulele (And famous he was.  At his peak in the early ‘50s, he had a Monday night TV show, a Tuesday night TV show and a radio talk show).  When he endorsed the Islander ukulele, made from Styron© (a Dow Chemical polystyrene), 9 million of them sold over the next 20 years.

And because these ukes were plastic, you could play ‘em in the shower, or drop them in the sink, and they’d be just fine.

Now if you like your stringed instruments a bit more in the Mozartian vein, you’ll find polymers there too.  The instrument makers Luis and Clark, for instance, make a full line of carbon fiber classical strings – from violins and violas, up to a string bass.  (And Yo-Yo Ma really likes their cello, so they must be onto something).

Plastic, Fantastic…Guitars: Making Music with Plastics, Part 1

What’s red and white and far-out all over?

A Res-O-Glas guitar, of course.

Ask Jack White or the Cure’s Robert Smith – John Fogerty or Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys –  Bob Dylan, even Eugene Strobe (we’ll get to him in a minute).  They’ve all taken the stage with Res-O-Glas at one time or another.

“Every guitar has a personality…sometimes they feedback more – sometimes they have this kind of, almost kind of toy-sound quality to them…they really have a unique sound…”

And that’s what Eugene Strobe is talking about, describing the sound he gets from HIS Res-O-Glas today.  You can HEAR what he’s talking about, in this intro to AM/FM (his band is Cosmic Light Shapes).

That sound, comes from the “Glas” in Res-O-Glas.  These guitars were made out of fiberglass, which is plastic reinforced with glass fiber.  That made them lightweight, and gave them that distinctive sound.

The original Res-O-Glas guitars go back to the early Sixties, when guitars were expensive.  Res-O-Glas wasn’t, then.  (They are, now – because they aren’t made anymore.)  And back in their day, the place you could buy these guitars, made by Valco (a long-gone American guitar maker) was – Montgomery Ward (yes, we’ll pause for a moment, while younger readers Google that name.

Back now?  We continue then.).

As groovy as Res-O-Glas guitars were, and are – it isn’t the guitar for everyone.  Oh, it’s true, for instance, that Jimi Hendrix started with one.  Then he gave it up (maybe when he discovered that fiberglass is inflammable).

Or, if you’re the DIY-type, Guitar Kits USA has what you need to build your own, and you can put the money you save toward a bass or drum kit.  Just sayin.

In Making Music with Plastics, Part 2 – if you thought plastic guitars were outta sight, we’ve got a piano for you.  A whole symphony, in fact.

Looking To Make A Little Money? Look Here.

“Most companies that pay six figures to the majority of their workers aren’t big banks or money managers, but ___________________.”

Yes, we ARE going to fill in the blank from that Wall Street Journal story.  But before we do, try and guess what comes next.  There are three industries after that “but”, and one of them might surprise you.

Ok, time’s up.  And now, here’s all of that sentence:

“Most companies that pay six figures to the majority of their workers aren’t big banks or money managers, but biotech firms that rely on medical researchers, and energy and technology companies with a large number of engineers and technical staff.”

Which is to say, as the Journal said, “More than 100 companies in the S&P 500 routinely awarded employees $100,000 or more in 2017 … Nearly half of those were in the energy industry…”

We’ve written about this before (http://imaginethat.org/stories/highest-paying-college-major-petroleum-engineering-jobs/)

Petroleum engineers, of course you’d expect to find them in the petrochemical industry – but there are also chemical and electrical and mechanical engineers, structural and facilities and power solutions engineers.  Engineers of all types (ok, maybe not train engineers).  And it isn’t just engineers.  Artificial intelligence, programming, 3D-printing, drones – the petrochemical industry is putting all those tools to work as well – so if tech is your field, there IS a place for you.

These are pretty cool jobs (in case you’re young enough to be thinking about your own career, or mid-career enough to be thinking about a change).  You might be working with one of the world’s fastest supercomputers.  You might be using sound waves to map the world underground.

You might be doing your work out at sea – in the mountains – the desert – a downtown high-rise – or all of the above (just not at the same time).

And, as this week’s news tells us, you’re rewarded for doing what you what love anyhow (which makes it even better).

Got a company you’d like to know more about (maybe the one where you work now)?  You can look up the median pay here, “How Does Your Pay Stack Up?